Tag Archives: Jean-Claude Juncker

Another European summit, with special attention to the Visegrád 4

The official word sent by the Hungarian government to foreign news agencies about the meeting of the Visegrád 4 prime ministers with President Jean-Claude Juncker over a lavish dinner, which included Jerusalem artichokes and foie gras, was that the meeting was a “success.” Viktor Orbán claimed that the V4 leaders presented a united front on every issue and succeeded in demonstrating to the EC president that the V4 is “a tight, effective, and successful alliance.” It is almost certain that, over and above the migrant issue, the “accelerating drift … toward authoritarianism” in some of the East European countries which most diplomats in Brussels consider “a more serious threat for the EU than Brexit” was also discussed. According to Bloomberg, the dinner “yielded a promise that the commission will seek to build an environment of consensus” between the Visegrád 4 countries and the rest of the European Union.

Source: Népszava / Photo: AFP/Dario Pignatelli

Viktor Orbán, who is capable of staging a fight even with a nonexistent foe, couldn’t go home empty-handed and simply say that the meeting was useful and that he, together with all the others, signed the closing document of the summit. Therefore, the Hungarian government media focused attention on a report by the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee (LIBE) of the European Parliament, which would impose mandatory migrant quotas and strip non-complying member states of EU funding in an effort to revamp the present asylum law. The rapporteur of the report is Cecilia Wikström, a Swedish liberal member of parliament.

What is this new plan all about? It does demand a “permanent and automatic relocation mechanism without thresholds,” calculated on GDP and population size. Refugees with relatives in countries will be able to join them; others will be offered four countries on a rotating basis, from which they can choose one where their case will be decided. As Wikström explained, “it means if the person enters Greece, chooses to go to Hungary, God forbid, then that person is allocated to Hungary.” I’m sure that the committee members spent a great deal of time and effort on this report, but anyone who has been following the ups and downs of the refugee crisis in Europe knows that this plan is dead in the water, especially since the day after it passed Donald Tusk made clear that any and all distribution of the refugees must be voluntary.

The Hungarian government papers are full of stories about the limitless compulsory distribution of migrants, without explaining the status of a parliamentary committee report, which may or may not be approved by the European Parliament. And even if it sails through the plenary session, it must be approved by the European Council, that is, all the heads of governments of the member states, including Viktor Orbán. It was only HVG that pointed out that a committee report means little in the legislative process. Looking upon it as a weighty final decision is just a political ploy. So, Viktor Orbán’s talk about “the bullet already in the barrel,” which will force all countries to accept migrants without limit, merely serves his political agenda. He knows as well as anyone that the general drift of thinking in Europe has been moving away from compulsory quotas and toward effective border control and limited acceptance of bona fide refugees. The European Commission would still like all member countries to participate in the processing of the refugees and their distribution, but only on a voluntary basis.

The closing statement which Orbán signed urges the implementation of Turkey’s acceptance of ineligible migrants; it presses for the strengthening of the EU borders; it doubles efforts at the curbing of human trafficking; it supports easier transfer of information between member states; and, finally, it advocates financial assistance to Libya and other African countries. According to news reports, Viktor Orbán suggested setting up a common fund to assist Italy in the defense of its borders.

The domestic propaganda effort is concentrating on the Wikström report. Zoltán Kovács, government spokesman, was dispatched to the state radio where he assured listeners that “the Hungarian government intends to oppose [the suggestions of the report] by all means possible.” What “LIBE is doing is nothing other than what we call the Soros plan.”

Kinga Gál (Fidesz), one of the deputy chairpersons of LIBE, gave an interview to Magyar Idők in which she called the report a “European invitation to all the migrants of the world.” She added that she hopes that “the European Council will have a sense of responsibility and common sense” and will, if it ever comes to that, refuse to endorse this plan. The Hungarian government still has to struggle “to save a small slice of the country’s national sovereignty.” Orbán described the Wikström report as “the strongest attack against the sovereignty of the country” to date.” National unity would be needed, but “the opposition parties support the migrant policy of Brussels that is based on compulsory quotas,” a false claim, by the way.

What did Viktor Orbán have to say about the Visegrád 4-Juncker dinner? He came to the conclusion that the difference between East and West is “worrisome, almost hopeless” and that “these differences are not so much political in nature but are rooted in cultural differences.” Nonetheless, the meeting was useful because “we could tell Mr. Juncker that we would like to receive more respect for the citizens of the Central European states, including the Hungarians.” Mina Andreeva, spokeswoman of EC President Juncker, called the meeting “friendly and constructive.” As Népszava’s correspondent in Brussels put it, “the president of the European Commission offered compromise and consensus as the main course to the four guests.” Since they agreed to repeat the meetings in the future, I assume the offers were accepted.

Viktor Orbán gave no press conference to the four or five Hungarian reporters who were waiting for him both after the dinner and a day later, at the end of the summit. With his refusal to talk to the reporters, he broke with his past practice of showering reporters with a litany of complaints about the decisions reached or trying to convince them of his own importance during the negotiations. Perhaps his silence indicates a less belligerent stance as far as the European Union is concerned. In any case, his attacks at home this time were directed only against the European Parliament and not against the “Brussels” bureaucrats.

October 20, 2017

Viktor Orbán rails against the European Commission’s “reasoned opinions”

This morning Viktor Orbán delivered one of his most ferocious attacks on the “Brussels bureaucrats.” He usually relegates this kind of conduct to his minions. He himself tries to maintain the level of decorum fit for a “serious” politician of a “serious country,” as he called Hungary and its government in the midst of his rant.

It is hard to tell whether Viktor Orbán was really as upset as he sounded in this interview on state radio or whether it was feigned indignation, preparing the ground for a meeting initiated by Jean-Claude Juncker with the Visegrád 4 countries. I suspect it was the former. I think he meant every word of his harangue, and I am almost certain that this strident attitude of the Hungarian officials led by Viktor Orbán himself will only be magnified in the coming months.

The immediate cause of Orbán’s outburst was the European Commission’s latest “reasoned opinion,” which Hungary received two days ago. In June the Orbán government passed a law on the status of foreign-funded non-governmental organizations that the European Commission considered to be in violation of the right of freedom of association and the protection of private life and personal data, which are safeguarded by the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights. The law was, they argued, also a breach of the principle of free movement of capital. In July the Commission initiated an infringement procedure, to which the Hungarian government had three months to respond. If the response was unsatisfactory, the Commission would take the next step in this legal process, issuing a “reasoned opinion.” It was this “reasoned opinion” that reached Viktor Orbán’s desk with the message that “if Hungary fails to reply satisfactorily to the reasoned opinion, then the Commission may refer the case to the Court of Justice of the EU.” In July Hungary also received a reasoned opinion on the higher education law, which disproportionately restricts EU and non-EU universities in their operations.

On October 2 Jean-Claude Juncker invited the prime ministers of the Visegrád 4 countries to a dinner on October 18, which was labelled a “conciliatory” one. But Viktor Orbán, judging from this interview, is girding himself for battle, or at least he is very skeptical that Juncker can offer them anything that will be satisfactory. In any case, Orbán, in his current frame of mind, is not ready for any kind of conciliation. In fact, he has a profound contempt for the whole institution and its politicians, and he finds the European Commission’s legal pronouncements unworthy of serious consideration.

First of all, these two infringement procedures “have nothing to do with the Charter of Fundamental Rights or the European Constitution.” They “smell of politics even from far away.” The opinions issued are “the objects of general derision everywhere in Europe. A sensible lawyer wouldn’t even touch it…. It is clear that this document is the result of a political diktat… A lawyer—how shall I say—can’t even talk about it in all seriousness and without laughing. This is so ridiculous that one doesn’t even know what to do with it…. Perhaps the most ridiculous argument is about the free movement of capital. What does a donation have to do with the free movement of capital? These are ridiculous things…. If we accepted them, we would become laughing stocks. This is a serious country which even after a month of deliberation cannot say more than that this whole thing is ridiculous. Therefore, the case will end up in court.“ Orbán’s conclusion is that “the people like the European Union but they can’t stand its leadership.”

Viktor Orbán’s attitude toward European Union politicians and administrators is well illustrated by his story about the European Parliament’s delegation that visited Hungary about a week ago to assess some EU-funded projects. During the course of their visit members of the delegation went to see one of Orbán’s pet projects, the narrow-gauged train built in Felcsút, the village where he spent his first 14 years. The delegation found everything in perfect order. Why did they come in the first place?, Orbán asked. Because “they must occupy themselves with something while we are defending Europe instead of them.” These no-good MEPs attack the valiant Hungarians whose soldiers and policemen defend Europe. But he doesn’t give a fig.

After this diatribe he moved on to the Soros network and the Soros “plan,” introducing some new elements and twists. One is that his government was the one that “accomplished a very important task. It uncovered “the network of George Soros which until now had been hidden.” He declared that Fidesz politicians will daily prove the connection between the European Parliament’s committee that is investigating the Hungarian government’s undemocratic ways, which may lead to the triggering of Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union, and George Soros. Because all the members of the committee are Soros’s men. “They are his allies who eat out of his hand.” The report they write will reflect Soros’s conclusions. The cards are stacked against Hungary. The Soros “plan” works.

Orbán came up with an entirely new interpretation of the origin of the Soros “plan.” In his opinion, it was a direct answer to his own plan, which he submitted to the European Union as a solution to the migration crisis. Although it is not entirely clear, I suspect he is talking about Soros’s 2016 essay “This is Europe’s last chance to fix its refugee policy.” Orbán recalled that he had published a comprehensive plan at the height of the crisis, which consisted of several points outlining “how Europe should be defended, offering some solutions.” At this very moment, “as an answer,” Soros made public another plan that had several points just like his. Instead of his own ideas, it was this Soros “plan” that was adopted by the European Union. Brussels will deny this, but it is time to let the bureaucrats know that “Hungary is not a country of imbeciles.” They know what’s going on. The EU politicians cannot pretend that all this is just a coincidence. Hungarians “are not simpletons.” On the contrary. They know that “George Soros bought people, organizations … and that Brussels is under his influence. As far as immigration policy goes, the Brussels machinery is carrying out Soros’s plan. They want to dismantle the fence; they want to bring in millions of immigrants; and they want to forcibly disperse them among the member states. And they want to punish those who don’t submit.”

Orbán apparently “smiled mysteriously” when the reporter referred to the “friendly dinner” the Visegrád 4 countries will have with Jean-Claude Juncker. He indicated that he is not sure the meeting will be all that friendly. Of course, we know that Viktor Orbán behaves differently in Budapest and in Brussels. Perhaps today’s tiger will be a bunny rabbit by October 18.

October 6, 2017

Juncker’s vision for the future of Europe

In 2014 I was rooting for the election of Jean-Claude Juncker, considering him to be the best candidate to succeed the less than dynamic and imaginative José Manuel Barroso. He was known as a strong supporter of a more integrated Europe, which I consider a must if the European Union wants to survive and play a political role commensurate with its size and economic importance. Twenty-six of the 28 prime ministers and heads of states voted for him. There were only two prime ministers who didn’t: David Cameron of the United Kingdom and Viktor Orbán of Hungary.

I guess I was hoping for some quick policy changes that would indicate a tighter European ship, but what followed was crisis after crisis: 2015 saw another Greek bailout and the refugee crisis, and in 2016 the British voted to leave the European Union. Juncker’s tenure didn’t look like a success.

It seems, however, that quietly, in the background, the commission president managed to achieve 80% of what he and his team proposed for the 2014-2019 period. A senior commission official told Politico that on areas outside the commission’s tradition purview, like security and defense, “We’ve done more in six months than in the last 60 years, that’s all him.” Brexit last summer was the low point for the European Union, but since then some of the EU’s woes have subsided. A lot fewer migrants are arriving on the continent, Greece’s bailout seems to be working, and populist voices have quieted after a number of national elections. The Eurozone’s economy has been steadily growing, and unemployment, although still high, is back to its 2009 level.

Photo: Patrick Hertzog / AFP

Unless one is a keen observer of the European Union, these accomplishments are often swamped by the petty quarrels initiated by the Visegrád 4 countries. As Zsolt Kerner of 24.hu put it, “From Hungary the exact state of the European Union is distorted because of the government propaganda,” but the Juncker administration’s accomplishments are considerable.

Until now Juncker hasn’t made any effort to outline his vision for a more closely integrated Europe. But today he put forth some startlingly innovative proposals that could, if adopted, fundamentally change the very nature of the European Union. Leonid Bershidsky, a Russian journalist who works in Ukraine nowadays, wrote an opinion piece in Bloomberg in which he sympathizes with Juncker’s plans but notes that there are quite a few important European politicians, for example Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, who will most likely oppose a structure which, although “the word wasn’t uttered, … would be a federation.”

A summary of Juncker’s speech can be found on Euronews.com, and therefore there is no need to cover the whole speech here. Instead, I will concentrate on those items that speak directly to Juncker’s vision of a United States of Europe. First, as opposed to Merkel and Macron who would like to see a two-speed Europe or a core-Europe of countries using the euro as their currency and the periphery of countries mostly found in the eastern half of the continent, Juncker wants all countries, with the exception of Denmark which is exempt, to adopt the euro as they promised at the time of their adherence to the Union. He would entice the countries whose leaders are hesitant to take the step with generous financial incentives for the transitional period. Once there is a common currency, the Union should have its own common minister of finance in charge of the economy. That person could be one of the commissioners, who would also be one of the vice presidents of the commission. One reason for the Hungarian government’s hesitancy to join the Eurozone is Viktor Orbán’s reluctance to lose the independent Hungarian central bank, which has been the source of all sorts of questionable financial moves benefiting his government. Once in the Eurozone, the head of the Hungarian National Bank would just be one of the members of the European Central Bank.

In order to achieve “a Union of states and a Union of citizens,” he proposed merging the functions of the presidents of the European Commission and the European Council. This is an excellent idea not only because, as he put it, “Europe would be easier to understand if one captain was steering the ship” but because it would also make for less friction between the nation states and the center. Apparently, the idea is not new. In fact, the Lisbon Treaty’s wording intentionally allowed for such a merger in the future. This single president would be elected in a pan-European campaign with transnational lists. Juncker didn’t elaborate on how this would work, and it is not at all clear whether even his own party, EPP, would support such pan-EU lists. Optimistically, he believes that he will be able “to convince the leaders of [his] parliamentary group to try to follow this idea.” Juncker’s powers of persuasion are said to be extraordinary because he is able to change even Angela Merkel’s mind.

He also proposed that the new office of the EU chief prosecutor, which until now was supposed to have jurisdiction only over EU financial matters, would from here on get involved in the fight against terrorism. Hungary was one of the countries which for obvious reasons refused to accept the idea of an EU prosecutor’s office, but perhaps if the office is also involved with terrorism it would be more difficult to turn against the proposal.

Finally, Juncker suggested getting away from the need for unanimity in the decision-making process. Again, this is a complicated affair, but there would be a way via the so-called “passarelle clauses” in the current treaties, which would allow the process to move from unanimity to qualified majority voting in certain areas, provided all heads of state and government agree to do so. Juncker insists on using this tool in decisions on taxation and foreign policy.

There are practically no Hungarian opinion pieces on the Juncker speech yet, but Magyar Idők published an MTI report under the headline “Juncker promises a more united and more democratic union.” MTI reports are not supposed to add comments to its press releases, and therefore I was quite surprised to read that “this 70-minute speech by Jean-Claude Juncker has been so far his most considered and most measured state of the union speech, which was welcomed by the majority of the members of the EP delegations.” I really wonder who is responsible for this sentence.

Some of Juncker’s suggestions would remedy problems the European Union has been battling for many years. If a common currency, common army, and common financial policy were to become a reality, the EU would be on its way to being considered a sovereign entity. Of course, there would still be the question of a common foreign policy, but one cannot expect such giant steps. I’m sure there will be many who will find even that much hard to swallow.

September 13, 2017

Felcsút: The forbidden village for EP “bureaucrats”

Let’s return to Viktor Orbán’s choo-choo train, which runs between the two villages where the Hungarian prime minister spent his first 14 years. In his childhood this narrow-gauge railroad was still functioning, but because of insufficient traffic MÁV, the state railway company, scrapped the line sometime in the 1970s. Apparently Viktor Orbán had fond memories of that train, and once he had the opportunity he decided to revive it. His own Puskás Academy Foundation launched the project. It purchased and renovated the old run-down train station and bought newly refurbished cars and an engine. The project was declared to be of premier importance as far as Hungary’s economy was concerned. This designation was necessary in order to skip the otherwise requisite public tender procedures. It was supposed to be a great tourist attraction, with thousands of passengers.

By the time it was finished the train project had cost 3 million euros, 2 million of which was provided by the European Union as part of a 652.5 million euro package given for the development of the counties of Veszprém, Komárom-Esztergom, and Fejér. In June 2016 The Telegraph reported that OLAF, EU’s anti-fraud agency, was investigating the train, but that turned out to be a false alarm. Still, the Felcsút complex with its 3,500-seat soccer stadium only yards from Orbán’s weekend house and now a railroad going from nowhere to nowhere raised eyebrows in Brussels.

All that didn’t deter Viktor Orbán, who reportedly planned to extend the 5.7 km line, perhaps hoping that the number of passengers could be increased this way. The Hungarian government had promised between 2,500 and 7,000 passengers daily to justify the investment, but according to 444.hu, in its first month of operation Orbán’s choo-choo train attracted only 900 passengers–that is, only 30 a day. By October 2016 there were days when the train had no passengers at all. A few days ago atlatszo.hu published figures it acquired from the Puskás Academy. Since its first run on April 30, 2016, the academy reported, 48,533 people used the train. Last year 30,219, and so far this year 18,314. During that period, the railroad accumulated a 4.1 million forint loss. These dismal figures didn’t seem to bother János Lázár. In his opinion, if 20,000 people use the train, it is a profitable undertaking. Strange accounting, I must say.

From the start questions were raised both at home and in Brussels about the efficacy of this project, and therefore it was not entirely unexpected that the Budgetary Control Committee (CONT) of the European Parliament, whose fact-finding delegation will be visiting Hungary between September 18 and 20, put the Felcsút train on its agenda, alongside the huge Metro 4 construction project. Once János Lázár learned that the delegation would like to see Felcsút in all its glory, he hit the ceiling. Or, to be more precise, it was most likely Viktor Orbán who hit the ceiling. Lázár was just assigned the dirty work of fighting it out with the chair of the committee, Ingeborg Gräßle.

I have the feeling that Lázár/Orbán made a huge mistake when they decided to take on Grässle. She has been a member of the European Parliament since 2004 and is considered to be especially influential. She is known as a strong advocate of increased transparency and accountability. And, as we will see, she is no pushover. Occasionally one has the feeling that Fidesz politicians think they can intimidate foreigners as easily as they do their “subjects.” But Grässle is an especially forbidding opponent.

In any case, Lázár wrote a letter to the chair of CONT on August 9. In it, he complained that the committee was not following Hungary’s suggested list of projects and accused the committee of setting up a program of its own, which is “strongly politically motivated.” Politico quoted the following passages from his August 9 letter: “I found it outrageous that a committee of the European parliament systematically ignores and rejects a notable amount of suggestions of the Hungarian government, thus significantly interferes in the Hungarian [election] campaign.” He especially criticized the committee’s decision to include a trip to “the home village of the Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.” Grässle wasn’t impressed. She refused to change the fact-finding mission’s travel plans and politely assured Lázár that “there is no bias either behind the choice of the date of our mission or of the projects. The Budgetary Control Committee will conduct its visit in a politically neutral way, as we always do.”

Perhaps if at that point Lázár had just backed off he wouldn’t have gotten himself and the government he represents into hot water, as he ultimately did. On September 4 he wrote another letter, in the same manner as the first. Both letters struck some members of CONT as uncouth. And, further pressing their case, the Hungarian government instructed the Hungarian ambassador to the European Union to plead with Grässle to change the list of projects to be visited, or to postpone the whole visit until after the election in 2018. Grässle apparently told the ambassador that the budgetary control committee “does not accept political interference in the way it organizes its work of controlling the implementation of the budget.”

Ingeborg Grässle subsequently fired off two letters: one to Antonio Tajani, president of the European Union, and another to Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission. In her letter to Tajani she wrote: “I disapprove of the attitude to exert pressure on an EP parliamentary body with regard to the organization of a mission as well as with regards to its content.” She added that Lázár’s choice not to cooperate means that he does not comply—”in political or in legal terms”—with the requirements of mutual sincere cooperation, which is a basic rule among the institutions and member states. She considered the case so serious that she suggested to Tajani that he raise the issue with Juncker.

There is no question in my mind that it was Viktor Orbán who found the visit to Felcsút a personal attack on him by an EU body and tried to use next spring’s election as an excuse. But it backfired. As Grässle put it: “We are important but not that important.” Surely, it wasn’t the election that bothered the Lord of Felcsút. He simply didn’t want anyone from Brussels to see the place. As we know, anyone who tries to take pictures anywhere near the stadium is usually met with scores of policemen. And this case is more than the usual curious journalists trying to get close to his little empire. It is a group of European politicians who will see that whole grotesque scene Orbán managed to create in that “miserable village,” as Tamás Deutsch called it.

Orbán, with the assistance of Lázár, cast his regime in the worst possible light. One’s first response, which Grässle most likely shares, is: “These guys must have something to hide.” By the way, I wonder what the plans are for the day when the mission visits Felcsút. Will the Hungarian government order out thousands of people to ride their choo-choo train? Anything is possible in that Potemkin village called Hungary.

September 9, 2017

Another peacock dance: Orbán’s reversal on the verdict of the European Court of Justice

Yesterday I dealt with the exchange of letters between Jean-Claude Junker and Viktor Orbán concerning Orbán’s demand for EU reimbursement of half the cost of the fence the Hungarian government erected along the Serbian-Hungarian border. The Hungarian demand raised eyebrows in Europe and elsewhere, so Hungary was again in the international news.

The other reason for the preoccupation of the international media with Hungary was the long-awaited verdict of the European Court of Justice on the legality of the EU decision on the relocation of 120,000 asylum seekers. Slovakia and Hungary claimed that the decision-making process was illegal. Two days ago, on September 6, the Union’s top court dismissed the complaints of the two countries, dealing a blow to Viktor Orbán.

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico immediately reacted to the verdict, saying that “we fully respect the verdict of the European Court of Justice,” adding, however, that his government’s view on the relocation plan “has not changed at all.” Viktor Orbán, on the other hand, remained silent. In his place, Péter Szijjártó, minister of foreign affairs and trade, and László Trócsányi, minister of justice, gave a joint press conference, where the foreign minister vented. He called the ruling “outrageous and irresponsible.” In his opinion, the verdict endangers the security and future of Europe and is contrary to the interest of the countries of the Union, including Hungary. “Politics raped the European law and European values,” he claimed. He announced that “the real battle begins only now,” and he promised that the Hungarian government “will use all the remedies available at its disposal” to prevent similar central decision-making for Hungary.

Trócsányi was no less belligerent when he announced that the Hungarian government will start a new legal debate. Since he liked the phrase “the real battle begins only now,” he repeated it. He didn’t go so far as to accuse his fellow judges of acting politically, but he charged that they were preoccupied with the case’s formal aspects and neglected its contextual qualities. The case was thrown out in its entirety, but Trócsányi still praised the excellent legal work of his team. The legal arguments presented to the court were outstanding, and therefore he was quite surprised by the outcome. Trócsányi also indicated that Hungary will not have to take the 1,294 migrants because the case was only about the legality of the decision-making process.

Péter Szijjártó and László Trócsányi / MTI-MTVA / Photo Szilárd Koszticsek

In brief, it looked as if the Orbán government was prepared to go against the ruling and suffer the consequences. A day later, on September 7, this impression was reinforced by János Lázár at his regular “government info” press conference where he interpreted the decision of the European Court of Justice as an opportunity for the European Commission to allow “Brussels” to meddle in Hungary’s internal affairs. “We will use every legal instrument to preserve the independence of the country.” Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources, also chimed in and, in an interview with Deutschlandfunk, repeated Szijjártó’s accusation of a politically motivated and irresponsible decision on the part of the European Court of Justice. Everybody suspected, including naturally Viktor Orbán, that Slovakia and Hungary would lose the case, and therefore the word probably came down from above some time ago about what the proper reaction to the verdict should be.

After two days of criticism of the court and its verdict, Viktor Orbán came out with an entirely different approach to the question. In his Friday morning “interview” on Magyar Rádió he said: “Hungary is a member of the European Union. The affairs of the Union, its internal power relations are settled by the Treaty, so contracts have to be respected. Consequently, one must take cognizance of the verdicts of the courts. Hungarian is a sophisticated, refined language and therefore it does matter with what kind of word we react to a verdict, especially when we are functioning in a hostile Europe. I decided to use the word “tudomásul venni” which I took over from Slovak Prime Minister Fico.” Unfortunately, I don’t know what Slovak word Fico used when talking about his reaction to the verdict. English translations of Fico’s press conference use the verb “to respect” which, unfortunately, is not the equivalent of “tudomásul venni,” which might be better translated as “to take cognizance of.” However, I’m sure that some readers of Hungarian Spectrum will provide us with the the Slovak word that Fico used as well as with the best translation of the Slovak equivalent of “tudomásul venni.” Then we will be able to see whether Orbán and Fico are talking about the same thing or not.

Orbán’s interview was long, during the course of which he said many uncomplimentary things about the European Union, but at the end he came up with some startling statements. The interviewer reminded him that the politicians of the European Union consider the Polish refusal to abide by a court verdict as preparation for the country’s exit from the Union. If Orbán keeps talking about his “fight,” this communication may lead to the interpretation that Hungary is also planning to leave the Union behind. Here is Orbán’s answer: “Communication is interesting and in politics is often important, but it does not replace reality…. Hungarian reality is that the Hungarian people decided after a referendum to join the European Union. That decision was a correct one. No political decision can overwrite that decision. A popular referendum was held, and therefore no government action can reverse that determination. It was the Hungarian people’s choice, and that’s right and well.”

Although Szijjártó, who is in Tallin at the moment, expressed his trust in the unity of the Visegrád Four, there are signs that Slovakia and the Czech Republic are not ready to sacrifice themselves for Poland and Hungary. The weak link, I believe, is Slovakia. I heard an interview with Pál Csáky, a Slovak member of the European Parliament, who surprised me to no end with his condemnation of the Orbán government’s attitude toward the European Union. The reason for my surprise was that Csáky was Fidesz’s favorite among Hungarian ethnic politicians in Slovakia back in 2010. Lots of money was poured into Csáky’s party, the Magyar Koalíció Pártja (MKP), against Béla Bugár of Híd/Most. Despite the funding, MKP didn’t even manage to get enough votes to become a parliamentary party. Csáky at this point resigned. Today he made it clear that Slovakia will not follow Orbán’s suicidal strategy. Slovakia is all for the European Union.

There is another reason that Orbán may have changed his mind. The spokesman of the European People’s Party delivered a message to Viktor Orbán: don’t go against the ruling of the court because this verdict gives an opportunity to heal the wounds caused by the recent conflict between the member states. “The unanimous opinion of the party is that Slovakia and Hungary comply with the rules.”

Otherwise, Jean-Claude Juncker is ready to have a chat with Viktor Orbán, but his spokesman reminded his audience as well as Viktor Orbán that the position of the European Commission is explained in Juncker’s letter to Orbán. It is available for everybody to read and, in any case, the Commission is not in habit of verbal ping pong. Given Juncker’s firmness as expressed in his letter, I would not advise Orbán to continue to press his case.

September 8, 2017

Viktor Orbán on solidarity and financial assistance

In happier times Hungary wasn’t a prolific source of sensational news items for the international press. With the appearance of Viktor Orbán on the political scene in 2010, however, hardly a day goes by without some juicy story about what the Hungarian prime minister is up to. The avalanche of news items on Hungary at the moment is more impressive than usual. There are two reasons for this sudden interest in the country, and both are related to the “migrant issue.”

First, Viktor Orbán surprised Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, with a letter in which he demanded a hefty contribution to the fence he unilaterally decided to build along the Serbian-Hungarian border in order to prevent refugees and migrants from using Hungary as a transit route toward Western Europe. Second, the European Court of Justice just dismissed complaints by Slovakia and Hungary about EU migration policy. This is considered to be an important victory for the European Union and a blow to Viktor Orbán and his allies in Eastern Europe.

Today let’s tackle the controversy that has developed since August 31 over the issue of the cost of the fence and Orbán’s monetary demands. I will stick closely to the texts of the letters exchanged between Juncker and Orbán. All three letters are available in their entirety.

“I am contacting you regarding the protection of the external borders of the European Union and European solidarity,” begins Viktor Orbán’s initial letter to Juncker. As far as he is concerned, “Hungary followed the Schengen rules requiring the protection of the external borders” all along, and by that act Hungary “is protecting not only itself, but the whole of Europe against the flood of illegal migrants.” Orbán claims that the cost and maintenance of the fence is 270 billion forints or €883,000,000, half of which should be paid by the European Union. He closed his letter by saying that “we agree that solidarity is an important principle of the European community. When Hungary had to protect the common external borders, we started with immediate action and not a request for help. I hope that, in the spirit of European solidarity, we can rightly expect that the European Commission, acting on behalf of Member States, will reimburse half of our extraordinary border protection expenses in the foreseeable future.”

It was unlikely that Orbán seriously expected a positive answer from the European Commission. In a sense, he gave himself away in that last paragraph when he admitted that Hungary “started with immediate action and not [with] a request for help.” It was the sovereign decision of the Hungarian government to go ahead and build a fence along the country’s southern border. As for the cost, both opposition politicians and journalists in Hungary are in total darkness when it comes to the real cost of the fence. Most suspect that the figures are greatly inflated.

Hungarian media commentators were certain from the very first moments after the announcement of the demand that the European Commission would not be impressed by Orbán’s arguments. It took only a few hours after the Hungarian government made the content of the letter public for the Commission’s spokesman to announce that the European Union is not “financing the construction of fences or barriers at the external borders.” As for Orbán’s appeal to European solidarity, the spokesman noted that “solidarity is a two-way street, and all member states should be ready to contribute. This is not some sort of à la carte menu where you pick one dish.” The spokesman then summarized all the benefits Hungary received, for example “over €93 million in funding for Hungary, both from the EU’s Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund and the Internal Security Fund. It also awarded Hungary an additional €6 million in emergency funds.” He reminded his audience that in 2015 Hungary refused to be labeled a front-line state and rejected becoming a beneficiary country, like Greece and Italy. Instead, it opted to build a fence.

After this announcement on September 1, there could be little doubt that Jean-Claude Juncker’s reply to Viktor Orbán would be a firm rejection of the Hungarian prime minister’s specious reasoning. The tone of the letter, however, was polite and expressed an openness for cooperation if there is a willingness on the other side. First, he reminded Orbán of the events of 2015 when Hungary was greatly affected by the refugee crisis and the European Union proposed that an emergency relocation scheme would apply to Hungary, similarly to Italy and Greece. Hungary rejected this offer of “concrete solidarity, declining the possibility to benefit from relocation of up to 54,000 persons and decided to return nearly 4 million euros of EU funds pre-paid by the Commission.” Shortly after that, Hungary “challenged the validity of the Council decisions on relocation before the Court of Justice.”

Then came a list of all sorts of benefits Hungary received from the European Union in connection with the refugee crisis. The last item on the list was “another form of European solidarity [which is] represented by the EU’s regional funds. Hungary is the 8th largest beneficiary of the European Structural and Investment Funds in the period 2014-2020 with an allocation of 25 billion euros. This represents more than 3% of Hungary’s GDP annually, the highest of any Member State.”

Finally, Juncker “welcome[d] the call in [Orbán’s] letter for more Europe in the area of migration and border management.” He also assured him that he is “committed to working together with Hungary towards a more efficient and fairer European migration and asylum policy based on responsibility and solidarity.”

Yes, it was a polite letter, although it contained a fair description of the European Union’s objections to Viktor Orbán’s interpretation of solidarity. And there was one sentence in this fairly lengthy letter that must have sent Orbán into a rage, as we will see from his answer. That was Juncker’s reference to Hungary’s being the eighth largest beneficiary of the European Structural and Investment Funds. So, let’s turn to that crucial part of Viktor Orbán’s answer to Jean-Claude Juncker.

I would like to inform you that we are confounded by the part of your letter that creates a link between the question of immigration and cohesion funds. Such a relationship does not exist and is not permitted by the current EU acquis. According to the view of the Hungarian government, a significant part of the resources provided by Cohesion Funds landed at the companies of net contributor countries. The economies of major EU member states have thus greatly benefited from the use of cohesion funds, as they have benefited from opening the markets of new member states.

Viktor Orbán delivered a speech this morning in which he rejected the widely-held view that Hungary’s economic growth derives largely from the funds received from the European Union. I don’t have the complete text and therefore have to rely on MTI’s summary, but his argument was that Hungary’s yearly budget is 18,000 billion forints while the EU subsidies amount to only 1,000-1,500 forints. What Hungary has achieved in the last few years is “our success.” However, according to Péter Mihályi, a professor of economics, Orbán’s figures are wrong. Between 2006 and 2015, Hungary received 2,400 billion euros. During the same period the Hungarian economy grew by only 4.6%. Without the EU funds that figure would have been -1.8%.

Another topic that irritates Orbán is the European Union’s interpretation of solidarity. He didn’t elaborate on it, but he claims that Juncker’s “interpretation of solidarity is not in accordance with European Union legislation.” More critically, “it is not in accordance with Hungarian historic traditions either.” This difference in interpretation is explained by the fact that “in contrast some of the major member states of the EU, Hungary has no colonial past.” These countries, because of their colonial past, have become immigrant countries, but Hungary is not an immigrant country and does not want to become one. “The interpretation of the principle of solidarity described in your letter is in essence the transformation of Hungary into an immigrant country, against the will of the Hungarian citizens. In my view, this is not solidarity, this is violence.” Finally, Orbán said that he is “stunned and puzzled” that the European Commission refuses to provide funds for the fence. At the end he repeated his demand for half of the €883 million euros which, according to him, is the cost of the building and maintaining the 175 km fence.

Just a footnote to Viktor Orbán’s interpretation of solidarity. Last night, Zsolt Bayer, the anti-Semitic journalist of extreme political views, wrote an opinion piece for Magyar Idők that appeared in the early morning edition of the paper. He also argues that Hungary cannot be compared to countries that are situated in the West. Half of Western Europe countries, for certain periods of time, were colonial powers. These countries occupied large parts of the world where “they destroyed the culture and civilization they found. They killed the inhabitants; they carried away their treasures and raw materials. Those who survived were made slaves. This is the glorious history of the West. That’s how it became rich. That is how it became strong. It is from these treasures that they built their democracy. It is from this position that they began to look down on the people of Eastern and Central Europe who have never had any colonies. The people of those colonial empires are now going to their former slave owners and submitting a bill.”

So, the West is responsible in a way for the migration of the former slaves. They deserve what they get. And as for the financial assistance coming from the West, it is no sign of generosity because in the end all that money ends up in the pockets of western multinational companies. So, politicians of Western European countries have nothing to complain about. At least this is what Viktor Orbán thinks.

September 7, 2017

How strong is the Visegrád Four? According to some, it barely exists

Martin Mojžiš, professor at Comenius University in Bratislava, wrote an article recently with the title “How strong is V4?.” He came to the conclusion that “there is no V4, with a real political life, in reality.” Only recently Viktor Orbán claimed that the V4 is “strong as never before,” but Mojžiš’s opinion is that V4’s strength relies only on “strong words,” coming mostly from Viktor Orbán.

The ambassadors to the United States of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia got together the other day and gave a joint press conference which, according to Foreign Policy, is the only way for small countries to call attention to themselves. And yet, asks the author of the article, “Does anyone in the Trump administration care about the Visegrád 4?” The answer is “no.” I suspect that the gathering in the Hungarian Embassy’s Pulitzer Salon was initiated by the new Hungarian ambassador, László Szabó, former human resources director for the U.S. pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly. One of his jobs is to promote the concept and policies of the Visegrád Four in Washington. During the press conference the Czech ambassador conceded that to have the four countries act in concert is a “challenge.” For example, a meeting of representatives of the four countries’ foreign ministers was planned, but it never took place.

From left to right Ambassadors Hynek Kmoníček, László Szabó, Piotr Wilczek, Jozef Polakovič / Source: The Georgetown Dish

One reason for the U.S.’s lack of interest is the chaos that has reigned in Washington this year. But I suspect that even the State Department’s seasoned diplomats think that the Visegrád Four might not survive for long. Indeed, there are more and more signs of the regional alliance’s possible demise, which would be a major blow to Viktor Orbán, who considers the recent “revival” of the group his own handiwork. In fact, some people already in early July came to the conclusion that “Visegrád is dead” and that, in fact, “an anti-Orbán alliance is in the making in Central Europe.” This interpretation is a bit too Hungaro-centric for my taste, but there are indications that Orbán’s pride and joy is in trouble. For instance, the Czech Republic and Slovakia are reconsidering the efficacy of partaking in the fight of Poland and Hungary against the European Union. Thus, these two countries are looking for partners elsewhere. One result of this search is the Slavkov Triangle (S3) named after Slavkov, formerly known as Austerlitz, where the prime ministers of Austria, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia met at the end of June. More can be found on the Slavkov Triangle in my post “What awaits the Visegrád Four?”

A couple of months later, on August 15, Robert Fico backtracked from his previous euroskeptic position and distanced himself from Hungary and Poland when he announced that Slovakia’s place is in the deeply integrated “core” Europe. Fico announced that “the fundamentals of my policy are being close to the [EU] core, close to France, to Germany.” He added that he is “very much interested in regional cooperation within the Visegrád Four, but Slovakia’s vital interest is the EU.” One could foresee such a development earlier when Fico, after conferring with Jean-Claude Juncker, announced his willingness to accept 60 refugees. Moreover, of the four Visegrád countries it was only Slovakia against which the European Commission didn’t initiate infringement procedures for rejecting migrant quotas.

But that’s not all. The Czech Republic’s foreign minister Lubomír Zaorálek just announced, according to Reuters, that his country may try to get an observer seat at the Eurogroup of Eurozone finance ministers if the body’s decision-making powers are boosted under plans to reshape the European Union. Having an observer status would be beneficial to the Czech Republic, and it is unlikely that this attitude would change even if a new government wins the elections in October. All in all, there is a fairly rapid abandonment of the hard-line positions of Poland and Hungary by the Slovaks and Czechs.

A couple of weeks ago we learned that the prime ministers of S3 will gather in Salzburg on August 23, where they will meet the French president on his way to a three-day trip of some Central European countries. The topic will be “the future of Europe.” From Austria Macron will fly to Romania and Bulgaria. Hungary and Poland are not included in his itinerary. We don’t know whether Hungary tried to convince Macron to visit Budapest or not but, according to Politico, the Polish government tried its best to entice Macron to stop over in Warsaw but hey “didn’t see much willingness” on the part of the Élysée Palace. Perhaps Macron has given up on the two intransigent illiberal states, although French diplomats keep insisting that Macron has no intention of driving a wedge between the Central European nations that came together in this regional alliance.

Still, there is little doubt that the European Commission and the some of the Western European leaders would like to weaken the influence of Poland and Hungary over the Visegrád Four. Deutsche Welle’s reporter, for example, believes that “the EU is now eyeing Slovakia as a peacemaker,” a country that might be helpful in keeping Poland and Hungary at bay. Moreover, if the Czechs join “core” Europe, Hungary will certainly want to reconsider its relationship with “Brussels.” As we know from past experience, Polish-Hungarian friendship has its limits. Viktor Orbán will not hesitate to abandon Warsaw if he feels that it is no longer to his advantage to support the Polish position. Now that the summer is more or less over, I’m sure that exciting days are ahead of us, especially within the sphere of EU-Hungarian relations.

August 22, 2017